[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Re: [xmca] The Ubiquity of Unicorns

Just to toss in a couple more examples:

1. I thought I remembered Marco Polo reporting on a unicorn he saw, which readers now recognize as a rhinoceros. Since I wasn't sure I got that right, I googled and found a nice wikip article at

On Adorno ... one thing he LOATHED was jazz.
I think that makes the point less ambiguously than the TV example.

On Sun, 18 Oct 2009, David Kellogg wrote:

I'm going to give two late cheers for eric's formulation "being does", at least insofar as we are talking about cultural being in general and aesthetic being in particular. But at the same time I want to reserve my third cheer for some kind of complement to the verb, and to put in a plug for a rather literal interpretation of the word "ideal" in the cultural, artistic realm; I think in order to qualify as culture even material culture really does have to have a utopian, unicorn element, but that element is nevertheless irreducibly realist.
Mike likes to cite the Rilke poem about the unicorn. The English translation he gives, though, goes like this:
The Unicorn by Ranier Maira Rilke 

This is the creature there never has been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene. 

I think this is a mistranslation; in the German the unicorn is "geliebt" or "beloved", because in Rilke love is intransitive; it's not an object oriented activity at all. There's actually a good paper on this poem and how it was derived from the unicorn tapestries at Cluny at: 
It turns out that intransitivity is an important trope in Rilke generally, and of course it was a favorite device of the German neoromantic lyric poets, who believed you could get a kind of unmediated sense of reality by stripping verbs of their arguments, like petals from a flower.
Adorno is scathing about all of this. It's sometimes hard to read Adorno because he seems so irritated all the time, until we remember that he really had a LOT to be annoyed about. In this case, what he is eating him is the "jargon"  (or "aura", as Walter Benjamin says) of a secular sacred language, a language which pretends to be unmediated by human lips.
What infuriates him is the philosophical rehabilitation of the linguistic work of Heidegger, a devout Nazi whose main criticism of the extermination camps was that they were too newfangled and modern (presumably real Germans would have strangled the Jews one by one with their bare hands). It's really Heidegger who likes to say things like "Being is" and above all "death is" (yes, I know that Hegel said it too). But even Rilke likes to speak of  "encounters" and "statements" as if what was encountered was a unicorn and statements were not concretely instances of who says what to whom and why.
Habermas says, in a book that would have greatly annoyed Adorno if he had lived to read it (The Theory of Communicative Action) that our knowledge has the structure of propositions. I think Adorno would prefer to say that it propositions have the structure of knowledge, but that knowledge is composed of questions as well as statements. I'm not sure he would agree that it is composed of imperatives; I think imperatives are too sly about their subjects and objects; in linguistic terms, they don't have enough argument structure.
One of the things I most like about the unicorn paper (link posted above) is the historical research. Segal points out that unicorns are reported in almost all the major cultures, and go back many thousands of years. 
Take, for example, the Chinese unicorn, which is probably the oldest speciment. During the early Ming Dynasty, when Zheng He was sent on voyages of discovery to Africa, he captured a pair of giraffes and had them brought back to China. The emperor then had them widely exhibited, because of a tradition which held that the discovery of a unicorn during the reign of an emperor was an extremely auspicious sign. One of them survived, and I remember seeing an astonishing realistic portrait of it, which for reasons I never understood, did not have any of the usual polygonal marks on its skin.
When I was researching a book on the great Chinese famine of 1962-1963, I interviewed an old woman who said she had eaten part of the giraffe (which is still called a "qilin", or a unicorn, in Chinese) in the Beijing zoo. She remarked wistfully that it was a time when
nobody could afford hopes for the future.
The ubiquity of unicorns is really clear evidence that they really do exist, or rather it would be evidence of their existence except for the fact that insistence on the NONexistence of unicorns is an important feature of all these instances. To me, it is evidence of something even more wonderful; the literally IDEAL component of even material culture, the element of culture which suggests, not its reproductibility but rather its perfectibility. And that's what Adorno is really complaining about, and why he can't find any culture worthy of the name on television.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education
xmca mailing list

Tony Whitson
UD School of Education
NEWARK  DE  19716


"those who fail to reread
 are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
                  -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
xmca mailing list